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You must be a basketball player

In this excerpt from his new book, Anthony Stewart explains why professors from visible minorities can’t help but experience a different, and often less inclusive, world of academe.

By UA/AU | FEB 08 2010
Anthony Stewart, the author. Photo by Peter Leverman.

Several years ago, at a banquet, I was introduced to a recently retired Nova Scotia judge. The people I was with, lawyers mostly, made it clear to me that this was a real treat, which is how I saw it too, since I do not meet a lot of judges. As we shook hands, the judge said, “You must be a basketball player.” This statement embarrassed the people I was with, although understandably, no one said anything at the time. Several of us talked about it later, though.

I pointed out how disturbing this statement was because the judge was caught making a snap judgment based on appearance, and how this appearance made sense to the judge. This person did not see a university English professor, but a basketball player. As I said to my friends about this later, I wonder if, while on the bench, the judge might have been guilty once or twice of similarly forming evaluations based on such preconceived ideas. Then again, how could this not be the case? How can any of us not do this, at least some of the time?

Academics in the big three subjects [English, history, philosophy] especially are expected to conform to a rigorous, even rigid, manner of expression in their writing. In his landmark essay, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” published in 1865, Matthew Arnold set the early standard for critical expectations. As one of the arbiters of what he calls “the best that is known and thought in the world,” Arnold described literary criticism as follows:

“It is of the last importance that English criticism should clearly discern what rule for its course, in order to avail itself of the field now opening to it, and to produce fruit for the future, it ought to take. The rule may be summed up in one word – disinterestedness. And how is criticism to show disinterestedness? By keeping aloof from what is called “the practical view of things”; by resolutely following the law of its own nature, which is to be a free play of the mind on all subject which it touches. ”

In spite of myself, I have always liked Arnold’s idea, in theory. The values of disinterestedness, keeping aloof from the practical view of things and the free play of the mind, imply the democratic values of merit, objectivity and fairness. They also suggest a welcome respite from the ugliness of the world around us. Who could argue against any of this? But in reality, Arnold is writing at a time when pretty much everyone in a European university looks like Arnold himself: white, male, and, at the very least, middle-class. Under such circumstances, it comes as no surprise that he might feel as confident as he clearly does, not only in evaluating what’s best about the critical endeavour, but also in the validity of his evaluations generally. After all, when everyone around you has been shaped by the world in ways very similar to the ways in which you have been shaped, it’s probably easy to feel comfortable as you go about your daily life, thinking, writing, and “disinterestedly” deciding what is worth reading and, just as significantly, what is not.

People of colour are often drawn into the very “practical view of things” that Arnold announces criticism should not concern itself with. How can we not be?

I am sitting in my car waiting for a traffic light to turn green. This is Kingston, Ontario, during the 1990–91 academic year, my first year in the PhD program at Queen’s University. My mind turns to the seminar presentation I am scheduled to give the following day on Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart. As the light turns green, a young man leans out of the passenger-side window of the car to my left and spits on the roof of my car. The car drives off and, unaccountably, I chase after it in mine. After several blocks of this high-speed chase, I come to my senses and give up, realizing that catching up to them promises nothing constructive, to say the least. (My heart races a little as I recall this story some 18 years later.)

As I get to my parking space at my apartment, I sit in the car with the engine off and my heart pounding, in a rage that this happened and that I didn’t keep after them until, one way or the other, I could confront them. I ended up presenting this experience to my class the following day. I felt that a class that purported to deal with issues of race in literature was the place to give air to what had happened. The professor for the course, Dr. Leslie Monkman, was very gracious about listening to what I said, although he had nothing to add and looked bereft as I told my tale. (We talked about the event some time later, and he was still very shaken by what had happened to me.) One of the other students in the class asked, after I was finished, how this event might be related to Achebe’s novel. Strangely, he was probably right to ask; he may even have been trying to engage with what I had said, but his question cemented in my mind the fact that my experience in graduate school could not help but be different from that of my classmates.

As I said, how can I be expected to hold myself aloof from the practical views of things? More to the point, why should I adopt such a position as a condition of membership in my chosen profession? Perhaps most frustrating is that my classmates were just well-meaning people engaging me in low-stress conversation. For me, though, these conversations represented the injustice that I (and, it seemed, only I) endured in my graduate program. It seemed to me that my classmates could hold themselves aloof without any trouble. Disinterestedness may not always be possible or even desirable if it means resolutely following literature’s laws (whatever they might be) without attention to the world that produced a given work of literature, the accepted evaluations of it, and the evaluators of the literary work.

When I was a graduate student, I was fortunate enough to hear two talks by Dr. Charles Mills. Dr. Mills teaches in the department of philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago and is African American. One of the more memorable things he said during one of his talks was that he was at that time (around 1994) one of only a hundred black members of the American Philosophical Association, which, he said, had a total mem-bership of approximately eleven thousand philosophers. As a result of this very low rate of representation, Dr. Mills said, whenever he entered a room at a conference, he felt he first had to lay out his credentials, tell people who he was and why he was there, before he could start philosophizing. His white colleagues, he said, could simply arrive and start philosophizing. This example resonated greatly with me at the time and even more so today. The feeling of having to justify who you are and why you are in a place where other people do not expect you to be cannot help but put you at a disadvantage, at least implicitly. The sensation of insecurity and suspicion that Dr. Mills describes probably does not sound unusual to a faculty member of colour anywhere in Canada.

But there is more to Dr. Mills’s observations than just insecurity or suspicion. In the same way that members of the ethnocultural majority in Canada’s universities do not get much practice dealing honestly with matters of race, people of colour working in the academy do not get a lot of practice interacting with their institutional spaces from the perspective of confidence and comfort necessary in order to put aside the practical view of things and work, shall we say, disinterestedly. On second thought, the ideal is less that people of colour should be able to start taking themselves for granted – Arnold’s description of the critical enterprise is nothing if not an ode on the joys of taking oneself for granted – but that everyone working in the academy should become a little more self-conscious, less able to make implicit claims of their own disinterestedness.

It’s worth acknowledging that most people working in the humanities, irrespective of ethnic heritage, would no doubt respond to my call for more self-consciousness by saying, “Nobody still believes in Arnold’s idea of disinterestedness. That’s from over a hundred years ago. Everybody working in today’s academy is self-conscious, or at least much more self-conscious than you are making them sound.” A version of this argument states that women have had to fight these same battles, people from working-class backgrounds have had to fight these battles, people only recently immigrated from Europe (sometimes trailing the remnants of accents) have had to fight these battles. Apart from the fact that when people say “women” in this context, they mean specifically white women, I accept these arguments; it is not my intention to try to compare the difficulties of some in a misguided attempt to prove they are more substantial than the difficulties of others.

What I am saying is that just because other groups have had such difficulties and have, to greater or lesser extents, overcome them within institutional settings through their own determination and the support of others, does not mean that these difficulties no longer exist just as validly for other groups now relatively new to the profession. Nor am I suggesting that absolutely no progress has been made with respect to ethno-cultural integration. The fact that I occupy a professional position that enables me to write this book is just one example that makes the point about progress obvious enough. But all too often, people are tempted to equate some progress with the complete resolution of a problem. It’s crucial that we see clearly what has been fixed while retaining the ability to continue focusing on what remains broken.

This line of reasoning is analogous to what goes on all too often in Canada with regards to questions of race. I can agree that, as a black man, I am more comfortable living in a Canadian city than I can imagine myself living a lot of other places in the world and that I feel a deep allegiance to this country as my home and native land (if complicatedly). But this acknow-ledgement should not have to come at the cost of a wholesale acceptance that there are no racial problems at all that accompany living in Canada.

This applies in the same measures to the big three disciplines as well. Can we really believe that people who teach in English, history and philosophy departments are the only people immune from the preference and bigotries that these same people, in their scholarly work, identify in others? It doesn’t make any sense. The existence of these preferences should not be seen as a surrender to the forces of bigotry but as a first step to deriving a new, more honest, and, as a result, more effective and constructive institutional vocabulary. Instead of an anachronistic practice of disinterestedness, what is needed is not merely more interest, but an honest declaration of interest. Such declarations would certainly help focus the priorities of hiring committees, for instance, when it comes time to consider the relative “merits” of job candidates.

The simple point to remember is that this was never a meritocracy. What might the question “will this person help integrate people of colour into our faculty” actively contribute to our deliberations over hiring? That is all so-called “affirmative action” asks committees to think about. Will a candidate help integrate a faculty? Is this a valid objective? When one looks around at the big three humanities faculties in Canadian universities, one cannot help but surmise that these questions are briefly considered and then dismissed, or are actively being answered in the negative.

This is an edited and shortened version of the original text, excerpted from You Must Be a Basketball Player: Rethinking Integration in the University by Anthony Stewart, published by Fernwood Publishing. Dr. Stewart is an associate professor of English at Dalhousie University.

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  1. Amanda / February 9, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    I would like to ask, how does the author know for sure that the backhanded compliment, “Are you a basketball player?”, was race-related and not height-related?

    Is it possible that black people’s presumptions of white people’s innate racist nature exacerbates race relations? And if white people are automatically racist then does that rule hold true for minorities who assume that all white people are racist?

    Consider the fact that I am a white female, six feet tall, and I too get a lot of “Are you a basketball player?” comments. I don’t feel embarrassed for the people asking such harmless questions. It is simply human nature, and an awkward social situation. I don’t understand why somebody would take offense to such a meaningless question. It’s not like only black people are asked such things, nor is there any harm intended.

    I have found that too many black people make a lot of erroneous presumptions about white people which only makes race relations worse.

    Just a thought.

  2. Duane / February 10, 2010 at 9:06 am

    Amanda: You make a good point. My brother who is a 6’6 black man lives in Bermuda and is asked if he’s basketball player constantly by black people there based on his height alone. So yes. Height would no doubt be a factor in the author’s case too. However, stereotypes concerning black people as naturally good athletes do exist. In my experience playing with mostly white players it’s assumed that I’m one of the better players before I touch the ball. (Full disclosure: I’m 6’2 and athletic) However there are usually white players that also fit that description yet people clamor to have me on their team. If I play with mostly black players in a black community. I’m just another dude who’s yet to prove himself. And people hesitate to pick me for their team. I think the author only writes from a black/white perspective because white people are the vast majority in the elite circles he’s describing. I agree that a lot of us assume racism before racism occurs. But you have to respect our history to understand why. I personally haven’t faced much racism in my life but my parents and even more so my grandparents did. It’s their duty to pass those experiences down to me so I’m aware of the world I live in. It’s hard for people to just let go of something that affected their lives so seriously so some aren’t able to let go of those fears. Then when you see all the racists that popped up during the Obama campaign those fears are confirmed. I don’t think that the author is out to demonize the white race. I think he’s saying that there’s a culture in Canada that IGNORES race as a way to show equality when sometimes there are disparities that need to be addressed more directly.

  3. Phil Okeke / February 10, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    I relate very well with this writer but from perhaps a different context. Raised in the ‘hinterlands’ of Africa with very little ‘in- your- face’ racial mixing, it has taken me quite a while to become sensitive to such racist undertones. As a university professor however, I have uncounciously taken on two personas – the insider who has become adept at weaving my way around the political/academic maze and the other who stands apart as an outsider. I often find myself at universty Xmas parties watching groups of colleages – people I know very little about. I’ve made friends, gained supporters and admired the few brave souls who cross the lines to reach out. But I never forget one thing: I am still the outsider.

  4. Baljit Singh / February 19, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    This is an interesting read. I was a PhD student at University of Guelph at the same time Dr. Stewart was at Queens. Guelph lies to the side of 401 and the number of ethnic minority students in the undergraduate program was very low and there were a few more in the graduate programs. The car incident is something that used to and believe still happens a lot in Canada including in the university towns.

    The bigger problem, however, is that university continues to overlook the credentials of the candidates from ethnic minorities who are aspiring for leadership roles. There still is this undercurrent that the ethnic minority professors somehow do not share in the wider cultural norms in the Canadian universities and therefore are not highly suitable for these roles. The glaring examples would be from veterinary medicine and agricultural colleges. The optimism however comes from the progress that has been made in the recent times with more ethnic diversity in the administrative set ups of the universities in Canada.

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